Tag Archives: Route 15

The Susquehanna Headwaters: Eco-community vs. American naturalism (Pt. 2)

In James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Deerslayer, the title character (a.k.a. Natty Bumppo) participates in a mythical origin story for the Susquehanna at its headwaters on Lake Otsego.

Fascinated with finding the lake’s watery vista onto endless Eastern Woodlands, Deerslayer asks his companion Hurry: “Have the governor’s, or the King’s people given this lake a name? If they’ve not begun to blaze their trees, and set up their compasses, and line of their maps, it’s likely they’ve not bethought them to disturb natur’ with a name.”

Hurry says that it has no official name, because it’s not on a government map.

“I’m glad it has no name,” responds the young Deerslayer, “or, at least, no pale face name, for their christenings always foretell waste and destruction.”

Hurry explains that each Indian language has different vocabularies and names for such places, but adds that for his friends, “we’ve got to calling the place the Glimmerglass, seeing that its whole basin is so often fringed with pines cast upward from its face, as if it would throw back the hills that hang over it.”

Indeed, as Hurry and Deerslayer move across the lake their canoe “lay on the glassy water, appearing to float in air, partaking of the breathtaking stillness…The echoes repeat pretty much all that is said or done on the Glimmerglass, in this calm summer weather.”

When Deerslayer is to meet Chingachgook, “the great serpent” of the Delaware, nearby on the old meeting rock, which is being lapped away by water into its later current small state at the lake’s outlet, he asks of the river out of “Glimmerglass”: “Has that no Colony name yet?”

“In that particular, they’ve got the advantage of us,” says Hurry. “Having one end, and that the biggest, in their own keeping, they’ve given it a name, which has found its way up to its source; names nat’rally working up stream. No doubt, Deerslayer, you’ve seen the Susquehannah, down in the Delaware country?”

“That have I, and hunted along its banks a hundred times.”

“That and this are the same in fact, and I suppose the same in sound. I am glad they’ve been compelled to keep the red men’s name, for it would be too hard to rob them of both land and names!”

The account continues: “Deerslayer made no answer, but he stood leaning on his rifle, gazing at the view which so much delighted him. The reader is not to suppose, however, that it was the picturesque alone, which so strongly attracted his attention. The spot was very lovely, of a truth, and it was then seen in one of its most favorable moments, the surface of the lake being as smooth as glass, and limpid as pure air, throwing back the mountains, clothed in dark pines, along the whole of its eastern boundary, the points thrusting forward their trees even to nearby horizontal lines, while the bays were seen glittering through an occasional arch beneath, left by a vault fretted with branches and leaves. It was the air of deep repose, the solitudes that spoke of scenes and forests untouched by the hands of man, the reign of nature, in a word, that gave so much pure delight to one of his habits and turn of mind. Still, he felt, though it was unconsciously, like a poet also. He found a pleasure in studying this large, and, to him, unusual opening into the mysteries and forms of the woods, as one is gratified in getting broader views of any subject that has long occupied his thoughts. He was not insensible to the innate loveliness of such a landscape, either, but felt a portion of that soothing of the spirit which is a common attendant of a scene so thoroughly pervaded by the holy calm of nature.”

There is an element in “Glimmerglass”and the origin of the Susquehanna in Cooper’s fantasy history of Edmund Burke’s notion of the sublime: physical delight in participation in a safe terror through ecopoetics that put one on a perch between worlds, fully aware of larger contexts of life, the terror in Cooper’s story perhaps relating both to the awesome expanse of wilderness in which the lake affords an insight as well as awareness of what was to come as the western course of empire rolled over it.

There is a parallel too between the mirroring and echoing Glimmerglass as the both unnamed and (to other cultures and ages) multiply named source of the Susquehanna, and the Green World trope of English literature in works such as Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queen, a favorite of Cooper’s, or Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur with its influence on Romanticism and thus on The Deerslayer as well. The trope of an “overlay landscape” of story in real geography stretches back in Insular contexts to earlier Celtic Christian sources. In them a spiritual sense of the sea melded with the desert of the Eastern fathers and the clouds, fogs and winds of the Gulf Stream Atlantic. Cooper extended the Celtic sea-desert to the woods in concert with his sources on Native American culture from accounts by Moravian Christians and their mainly peaceful interactions with Indians in the Susquehanna region.

The resulting “overlay landscape” of story at our headwaters, evident in the name of Glimmerglass State Park and many references on area markers and maps to Cooper’s Leatherstocking Cycle of five novels based at the Susquehanna headwaters, reflects the role that storytelling has played in the vibrant community of historic, landscape and nature preservation in the area.

Indeed, Cooper’s fantasy writing and the nature writing of his daughter Susan Fenimore Cooper presented an alternative to both scientific and Transcendentalist writings about nature in the first half of the nineteenth century in America. His Leatherstocking cycle arguably formed America’s first environmental fiction in its depiction of the loss of the woodlands and wasteful misuse of natural resources, as explicated by Bucknell Environmental Center research fellow James Rickard. It helped inspire early American conservationists.

Cooper, an Episcopalian of Quaker background, specifically drew on Moravian accounts offering often intimate insights into native cultures from which he drew his romanticized depiction of Indians, which has been compared to that of the Elves in Tolkien’s Silmarillion. Interestingly, Moravian theology drew on some common sources and creeds to the culture that shaped earlier stories of the Celtic Otherworld. By contrast, Mark Twain drew on supposedly “scientific” approaches to nature and accounts of Indians as a degenerate people, in order to portray his famous criminal Injun Joe in opposition to Cooper’s Chingachgook.

Comparing the headwaters and its networks of conservation efforts inspired by Cooper’s stories to the scenic Susquehanna Confluence area between Sunbury and Northumberland affords a tale of two regions and of two different approaches to nature. The Confluence area until recently has lacked active regional conservation efforts. The separation of human community from the river is symbolized by the riverfront wall at Sunbury, the Route 15 mall corridor, and the neglect of and even aversion to the striking bluffs of Blue Hill. Even the striking historic center of Northumberland ended up turned inward from the Confluence.

Historically the central Anglo-American cultural figure at the Confluence was Joseph Priestley, “discover of oxygen”/”inventor of air,” utopian radical, and founding figure in both chemistry and (in retrospective denominational history at least) American Unitarianism.

Yet when Priestley’s friend Thomas Cooper’s plans for a large-scale settlement of educated English people in the area (which had inspired poetic ideas of a utopian “Pantisocracy” by Samuel Coleridge and Robert Southey in England) failed financially before it had begun, Priestley’s focus became his Georgian Northumberland house, its laboratory, and his family. His millennialist faith in progress and a revolutionary utopian society to come, combined with his transcendentalist yet scientific approach to nature, and with his practical focus ultimately on his own homestead-laboratory, would prove to be more in sync with the developing spirit of the American republic than that of the Cooper father-daughter writers at Lake Otsego, with their Quaker-Moravian-Anglican influences.

In the new America, wilderness would scientifically become more distant from human community and attempted utopia, and the popular implicit adoption of Social Darwinism as a “scientific” civic ethos nationally would complete that trend (reflected today in criticism by some secular environmental philosophers of Neo-Darwinism for fostering a “genocentric” teleological focus of organism vs. environment rather than information-based development within an ecosystem).

And the Confluence itself came to be downstream from the waste products of industrialization that resulted, especially coal mining and urbanization in the Wyoming Valley, which still leaves a visibly darker stream of water feeding into the meeting of the Susquehanna’s main branches.

There today, a focus on Priestley’s remarkable history as a treasured resource rightly forms a priority for Northumberland resident Julia Marano and her dynamic new Susquehanna River Confluence Connections coalition, as the group forges exciting efforts to interpret and highlight remarkable stories of the Confluence, which will be featured here in future.

Yet those efforts, through festivals and performances and forming alliances with area residents, universities in the Susquehanna Colloquium, and the Susquehanna Greenway Partnership on interpretation, involve building relationships through landscape-storytelling that the Confluence area has lacked—interweaving sites such as Fort Augusta and the Northumberland Historical Society, the Edison Hotel, Sunbury’s renovated Cameron Park square, and the area of Chief Shikellamy’s Old Shamokin, together with the Priestley House and historic Northumberland.

James Fenimore Cooper was no paragon of eco-virtue opposing trends toward a transcendental and abstract American sense of nature and wilderness in the industrializing nineteenth century. A would-be hereditary small-town squire who supported the democratic Andrew Jackson except for the latter’s Indian removal policy, and attacked the Whig oligarchy of upstate New York, he was like all of us a person of paradoxes, who, however, engaging in various traditions  in fictional ecopoetics (followed by his daughter’s nature writing) shaped stories of eco-community in the Susquehanna headwaters.

Joseph Priestley was no villain advocating environmental destruction, and his talents for scientific genius and cosmopolitan philosophizing mixed with a practical focus on frontier farming and laboratory work, Unitarian religious millenialism and a kind of technocratic radicalism, had its own paradoxes and left a rich legacy for recounting the Susquehanna Confluence’s heritage today.

But the two figures on the Susquehanna and their philosophies, and the history of their areas, can be taken as exemplifying two different paths toward American community with nature.

Cooper’s (and Cooperstown’s) was the less taken.


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